In Pale Fire Nabokov offers a cornucopia of deceptive pleasures: a 999-line poem by the reclusive genius John Shade; an adoring foreword and commentary by Shade's self-styled Boswell, Dr. Charles Kinbote; a darkly comic novel of suspense, literary idolatry and one-upmanship, and political intrigue.
No one with a shred less intellectual and literary confidence--even, I would say, arrogance--than the likes of Lolita's Nabokov would have dared to construct a 999-line verse that is at once brilliant and brilliantly bad and then append to it a novel in the guise of scholarly annotations.
I read my first Nabokov novel (it was Despair, his characteristically unorthodox contribution to Doppelgänger literature) in the 1960s and immediately became a fan. I read his novels one after another, his autobiography, his criticism, his lectures. At one time I loved Ada above all other novels. I was dazzled by the author's erudition and his fierce, unforgiving intelligence. I was in awe of his command of our language, not even his native tongue, in which he moved as through a tesseract, inhabiting dimensions that most of us could not even conceive. He played with English like Thor playing with thunderbolts, handling them like toys, but never, ever in the absence of absolute control.
And yet when I tried to read Pale Fire in about 1969 or 1970, I bogged down early and just could not push myself through it.
Pale Fire sat on my shelf--or actually a considerable succession of shelves in two states--until a few weeks ago. After reading Danielewski's House of Leaves and finding myself stymied in my attempt to write a review, I became aware that I could not accomplish that feat without first knowing Pale Fire. And so at last I read it.
Now I find myself oddly compelled (a) to give it five stars and (b) to not recommend it.
There is something almost embarrassing about the spectacle that this work presents, as if we were accidentally to espy the speaker fondling a ladies' silken undergarment and realize a moment too late that we ought to look away.
And yet we know that he knows we're watching, and catching us in the act of involuntary but fascinated voyeurism seems to be exactly his intention. We are the Biter Bit.
Not that I would say to anyone "Don't read it." I think it's a great work and continues to merit major attention. But it possesses such a quality of autonomous self-sufficiency that it seems indifferent to opinion and makes fools of us for trying to express one: as if we were to emerge, speechless, from a stunning performance of an operatic masterwork and overhear a bumpkin behind us gush, "That guy wrote really good music." How dare we judge it?
Story. The story. All right. It's a first-person narrative by one Charles Kinbote, putative professor of literature at a fictitious American college, who asserts a claim to the intimate friendship of a recently deceased poet by the name of John Shade. Kinbote takes it upon himself to publish a heavily annotated version of Shade's last work of verse. The annotations constitute not only an autobiography of Kinbote, whose personal history as a refugee from the fictitious European kingdom of Zembla is rife with political and sexual intrigue, but a catalogue of personal grievances by a self-avowed victim of endless private and public injustices. Converging paths lead to murder and leave the fate of John Shade's final opus in the hands of the quintessential unreliable narrator.
As the layers of self-revelation unfold and coy hints become an ever-broader trail of clues, we are led to wonder whether there is any narrative truth to be found in this deeply paranoid fantasy whose self-delusion appears from the first moment, with expressions of abject admiration for a poet who writes such lines as this (183-194):
The little scissors I am holding are
A dazzling synthesis of sun and star.
I stand before the window and I pare
My fingernails and vaguely am aware
Of certain flinching likenesses: the thumb,
Our grocer's son; the index, lean and glum
College astronomer Starover Blue;
The middle fellow, a tall priest I knew;
The feminine fourth finger, an old flirt;
And little pinky clinging to her skirt.
And I make mouths as I snip off the thin
Strips of what Aunt Maud used to call "scarf skin."
Nabokov knows exactly how banal this is, and yet he carries off the banality with such audacity of style and such intermittent exhibitions of genius that we cannot doubt he strikes precisely the note he means to sound.
The first of many puzzles that the reader must solve is simply how to read this multidimensional work to which there is no such thing as a linear approach.
I read it using two bookmarks, often with my fingers in several pages at once, and rereading sections in overlapping sequence while also following cross-references forward and backward. From foreword to index, I read every word, because every word from the beginning of the foreword to the end of the index is part of the story.
When I reached the end, I felt both satisfied and mystified, as though I had dived into the depths and seen strange creatures not of land--but also sensed the merest fraction of the depths not yet attained.
And those depths, if I could but see into them--I'm certain they'd be mocking me.
Pale Fire is Lolita’s sister and artistic equal, and as such is one of the very best English novels of the 20th century. Both novels were created by Nabokov at the arrogant peak of his inventive and intellectual powers in the 1950‘s and early sixties. Arrogant because he is the first to tell you that he thinks like a genius. More interestingly, he had unshakable ideas on what the art of literature is and heaped scorn on those whose different approach did not meet his standards: Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Mann, Eliot, Poe, Hemingway. On the other hand he was quite generous in his praise of those that with certain works met his criteria for real genius: Chateaubriand, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust.
The inspiration for the structure of Pale Fire: Foreword, Poem, Commentary, Index: was born in Nabokov’s 10 years of scholarly work (1954-64) translating Eugene Onegin into English. (Naturally, he used Onegin’s commentary as a platform to rain fire on other translators, by-standing 18th and 19th century poets and writers, stupid readers and politicians. Still, he comes across as the most scholastic scholar that ever schooled.) Imitated since, this structure was first applied to the novel form by Nabokov. It is the artistic purpose of the structure that should be noted: it highlights the connections between different parts of the novel. Commentary makes connections within the Poem, Index makes connections within the Commentary. Pale Fire is a novel about connections, the links and bobolinks. I feel the Index replaces Nabokov’s usual Introduction or Afterword to his novels, where he highlights the links between certain themes, like the Vanessa butterfly in this novel, that the reader may have missed.
The Poem is by Samuel Johnson look-alike John Shade, who is a stylized Nabokov. The poem is autobiographical, covering Shade’s father and mother’s death when he was a child, his surrogate mother’s death, his love for his wife, the excruciating suicide of his only daughter and finally his own death. The pain of the earlier deaths are assuaged when Shade discovers a reasonable hope for an afterlife.
The Foreword and Commentary are by Charles Kinbote, piss-poor scholar, neighbor and lunatic. He also is a stylized Nabokov, borrowing his exile status and talent at writing prose. Although one crucial note regarding The Haunted Barn and The Nature of Electricity complement the theme of an afterlife, most of the commentary is on the surface about Kinbote’s attempts to befriend Shade and have him weave Kinbote’s fantasies into a poem. The fantasies are of the last Zemblan king: his youth; the death of his father, mother, friend Oleg; his impossible doomed marriage to Disa; his captivity after the Zemblan revolution; and his colorful escape to America. Another figment of Kinbote’s imagination, the King’s would be assassin, Gradus, is weaved in after the fact.
The poem and commentary unite in the non-existent Line 1000.
In The Art of Literature and Commonsense, Nabokov writes, "Lunatics are lunatics just because they have thoroughly and recklessly dismembered a familiar world but have not the power---or have lost the power---to create a new world as harmonious as the old." Was that the genesis of Kinbote? He is a lunatic and an artist, and ironically his artistry is sharpened by his madness. His created Zembla is a vivid and harmonious world. His powers are equal to Shade’s (how could they not be?); so much so that the variants are indistinguishable from Shade and I believe lines 609-616 were created by Kinbote and inserted by him into the poem---I mean, if literary characters were real people and thereby capable of such behavior.
Lizst remarked that Shakespeare held up the mirror to Nature; Nabokov does the same, but his Nature is a great deceiver. Typically puns, charades, multiple languages, puzzles, unreliable narrators and a vocabulary beyond the usage of Mr. Parr, are his devices for deceit. Bombycilla, luciola, ingle, inenubilable---my word processor shows these all as misspelled. But there is an artistic method to it: Nabokov can hide his meaning in plain sight like a evolutionarily adapted bug. If you don’t know French or are too incurious to heft a thick dictionary, you lose. Nowadays, even the laziest person can google, though, can’t they? The copious allusions are another device that add to the themes while still keeping them secret (did you read Timon of Athens or Pope’s disastrous Essay on Man?).
By his art, noticing the connections, Shade and I think Nabokov, hope to escape from Time, Chance and Death. This doomed attempt to see the world as “fantastically planned, richly rhymed” can make even a prickly, disagreeable fellow like Nabokov seem sympathetic. That humans can take two unrelated things and relate them as in an Eisensteinian montage, is simply a consequence of how human brains have evolved, not proof of a Grand Designer that is connecting the things for us to discover later. Anything can be endlessly redescribed, endlessly recontextualized, endlessly connected to other things. But this is a work of art, and even Kinbote’s wild, idiosyncratic connections are planned and fit in with Shade’s. Thus, concerning his own work, it is best to let the artist have the last word.
Afterthought #1. If the reader imagines the pretty, skipping deer as a child then The Nymph complaining for the death of her Faun becomes a poem of profound unbearable grief. I dont know how Sybil Shade could have made her way through it without a mental breakdown. Incidentally, it is the connection made in the note to Line 678 that introduced me to Andrew Marvell’s genius.
Afterthought #2. Charles X telling Disa he did not love her was another extremely moving and sad part of the novel. Even Charles is haunted by something.
What he is, however, is an intriguing story teller, and his tale of the royal family of Zembla, and the fall of their last king, King Charles the Beloved, is an enjoyable yarn, complete with Nabokov's legendary prose prowess. It would be a mistake to ask, though, whether the story of Pale Fire is the story Shade tells in his poem, or whether it is Kinbote's tale of King Charles. The story of the novel is in the combination of the two, and most importantly, in the evaluation of what is really going on. Nabokov masterfully moves us through the plot, building us towards a revelation, and as we reader first guess and ultimately grasp, this revelation, we think we are in control of the story. The entire time though, Nabokov is in control, and the questions he raises by the end of the novel throw the reader's entire reading experience in question. I'll say something a bit less vague about this at the end of this review, where I will more freely make use of spoilers.
Kinbote's tales are exciting, and Nabokov's story telling is masterful and thought-provoking. The novel is also beautifully poetic, and quite funny. Kinbote's disdain for Shade's wife Sybill is all over the notes, as he blames her for keeping him from getting even closer to Shade. These passive aggressive notes are frequently amusing, as are some of the details of the various adventures of the Zemblans. The language is also mesmerizing, both in Shade's poem and in Kinbote's commentary. Take Kinbote's discussion of suicide (another example of the humor of the novel, as Kinbote explains why various possible suicide options are less than ideal), culminating in the recommendation that one leaps from an airplane:
``Down you go, but all the while you feel suspended and buoyed as you somersault in slow motion like a somnolent tumbler pigeon, and sprawl supine on the eiderdown of the air, or lazily turn to embrace your pillow, enjoying ever last instant of soft, deep, death-padded life, with the earth's green seesaw now above, now below, and the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body's obliteration in the Lap of the Lord'' (170).
Or the famous opening lines to Shade's poem:
``I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / by the false azure of the windowpane; / I was the smudge of ashen fluff - and I / lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky'' (25).
There are few that have ever written as Nabokov does, and the novel is riddled with his sublime wordplay, beautiful description and elegant prose. Coupled with the brilliantly crafted tale, this is a novel which deserves the highest of praise.
In the remainder of this review, I will say a few things about the novel which spoil the main story, and I wish to give fair warning. This novel is best experienced without knowing too much about it, as it allows Nabokov to take you along at his pace.
In particular, the revelation that we the reader feel we have a handle on, rather slyly from our armchair, is that Kinbote is actually King Charles. His interest in Shade's poem is based on the fact that he wants Shade to tell his story, and not just a story from his homeland. Where Nabokov takes us, however, is to a point where we ask whether anything Kinbote has told us is real in the first place. Was Gradus a reactionary from Zembla, who failed to kill his target, his former King? Or is he John Grey, a local man who mistook Shade for the judge who sent him away? We want answers, but they are not forthcoming in the novel. At the heart of the book is a mystery, and we can do our best to work it out from the periphery, but we never get the sort of clear answer one usually finds in a novel.
This has made the work a really fruitful domain for literary theorists, and though I am no expert in the field, I find their discussions of the novel fascinating. Some argue, and with some support from Nabokov himself, that the clues are there to identify Kinbote as a Russian professor at Shade's university (drawing parallels to Nabokov!), and that Kinbote is his invented personality. Others argue that Kinbote does not exist at all, and that he is a mere figment of Shade's imagination (and a few, the contrary). This is all on top of the more obvious and simple interpretations suggested by a first pass through the novel. It is no exaggeration to say that Pale Fire rewards careful scrutiny and subsequent readings. It is far too rich to fully absorb and appreciate in one sitting.
We are used to ``twist endings'' in literature and film these days, which force us to rethink everything we have read or seen. More often than not, they are simple devices, in which a key assumption we have been making (usually implicitly) is explicitly denied. Nabokov's novel is far more interesting. His ``twist'' is that the reader is not quite sure where to stand, what is solid ground and what is not. We know we have to rethink what has come before, but we are not yet sure how, and part of the richness of the novel is derived from it. It challenges the reader without resorting to gimmicks, or nonsensical plot devices. Close scrutiny, careful attention, and an open mind are rewarded when reading Pale Fire. Taken together with its entertaining yarns, humorous interludes and stunning prose, you have one of the best novels of the century.
The book purports to be the annotated posthumous publication of poet John Shade's final four cantos, an autobiographical poem that explores the meaning of life and art. The notes are written by a neighbor in the insulated university town where Shade lived and works. The poem's notes quickly dispense with any pretense of explicating the poem and instead recount the commentator's life and his relationship with the poet and his wife. The commentator casts himself as the exiled ruler of the northern kingdom of Zembla. He believed his epic tale to be worthy of commemoration and, as he ardently pursues a friendship with the poet John Shade, he hopes Shade will find the words to frame his story and praise the beauties of his glorious land. His growing frustration at Shade's autobiographical poem, which fails to capitalize on the brilliant material he has supplied, builds throughout the notes.
The book is rife with word play, characters leading double lives and outright lies in places. At many junctures, Nabokov's presence is palpable and the reader is left to wonder which fictional characters and which fictional events are imaginary and which are real … quite a feat for a work of fiction. The bizarre commentary and index at the end of the book give the careful reader many clues that only raise more questions and leave the reader anxious to start unraveling the puzzle all over again.
To the reader, it seems pretty clear that Kinbote and John Shade were not best friends. The more likely scenario is that Kinbote was a bit of a nosy neighbor who perhaps admired John, but that the admiration was not mutual. Kinbote seems tolerated at best, a bit of a nuisance. Also, all of the talk about being a former beloved king in a faraway country leads one to believe that Kinbote might not just be annoying, but possibly crazy. So you get a parody of poetry analysis, a story of a lopsided friendship, and even a bit of a mystery. Highly recommended.
Pale Fire is ostensibly an extraordinarily bad autobiographical poem by a poet named John Shade, but Shade gets overshadowed entirely by Charles Kinbote, his editor and annotator. As the poem goes on, we learn, via the endnotes, that Kinbote is the exiled king of a small land called Zembla, and lives in fear of his imminent assassination. Shade's poem recedes into the background, and readers are more or less left at the mercy of Kinbote's ramblings
Nabokov is having a lot of fun at the expense of academics, I think. Literary criticism doesn't (usually) overpower an author's intentions to the degree that Kinbote overpowers Shade, but he does conclude his Foreword by reminding the reader that "it is the commentator who has the last word." Does he ever. Great, fun book
I should probably re-read this with tabs to Wikipedia flying out all over the place.
Charles Kinbote, an unreliable narrator if there ever was one, tells of his neighbor, the poet John Shade and his last work, Pale Fire. Kinbote seems to believe that this last poem of Shade's will be inspired by the stories he has told Shade of his homeland, Zembla, and it's fugitive king.
We learn in the forword that Shade dies soon after finishing the poem and that Kinbote has drawn the wrath of Shade's widow.
The poem itself is interesting enough to hold a reader's attention.
The commentary is the meat of the novel. In it, Kinbote teeters between actual analysis of the work and the story he believes is the inspiration for the poem - that of King Charles of Zembla.
While I figured out where the novel was headed pretty quickly, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride - it was an addicting read for me.
I laughed out loud at a number of sections. The changing colors of a pair of swim trunks on a young boy; the mutations of state names when seeking out the vacation spot of the Shades; the numerous references to Sybil Shade and her dislike of Mr. Kinbote; the sheer absurdity of the hired hitman's miscommunications with his superiors.
So inventive and so different - I plan to revisit this novel again some day and revel again in the prose and poetry.
As we read through the poems, and especially Kinbote's commentary (which is more about himself and his own delusional pre-occupations than the poems it professes to expound upon), we begin to see the outlines of a harrowing story of fannish self-absorption and tragic genius. Nabokov's unreliable narrator is once again present and we must carefully sift through everything told to us in an attempt to discover what really happened to John Shade, just who is Charles Kinbote, and what, if any, meaning resides in the poetry of 'Pale Fire'?
An excellent and challenging read that ranks among Nabokov's best.
The structure of Pale Fire is this: First there is a foreward to the poem "Pale Fire," is a 4-canto poem, composed of 999 lines in couplet form. The poem is followed by a commentary, the bulk of the text of Nabokov's work. The surprise is this: The poem is purportedly written by one John Shade, an aging professor at a small university in Appalachia somewhere, but the commentary is written by Charles Kinbote, who as it becomes very clear as the pages progress, feels that he has provided Shade with thematic material for the poem, based on Kinbote's life as an exile from the country of Zembla. As things move along, the reader begins to realize that what we have here is a case of the unreliable narrator.
As the Forward begins, the reader is introduced to Charles Kinbote, who is writing the forward to Shade's last work, but by the end of the commentary section, you're not really sure who this guy is. There are clues interspersed throughout as to just who we are dealing with, for example, on page 194, the narrator notes that after Shade's death, faculty members at John Shade's university circulated a letter that stated in part
"the manuscript fell into the hands of a person who not only is unqualified for the job of editing it, belonging as he does to another department, but is known to have a deranged mind." (194)
This is certainly not the first inkling that we can't rely on Kinbote's story and it won't be the last. Besides, we know that Kinbote is dying to get his hands on Shade's poem because he is just positive that Shade has written a tribute to Kinbote's native land, Zembla, and the commentary weaves references throughout to Zembla, the revolution that sent the king into exile; in fact, within the commentary there is an entire story about this place and its king, complete with his childhood, his youth and career as king. But as it turns out, Shade's poem turns out to be an autobiographical reminiscence and musings on what awaits after death; all the same, the commentary makes everything bend to the will of the writer of the commentary. And, as Kinbote notes in his foreward, "for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word." (29)
So, who is Kinbote? Is he really who he purports to be? Is he a Russian emigre named Botkin who has changed the letters around in his name? Is he the King of Zembla? Is he Gradus, the king killer? Or, is this all just one big made up story by some other unknown person? If you, like myself, fall into the trap of trying to keep track of all of "clues," and attempt to piece the story together, you're going to come to a point at which you just stop and realize that you cannot do this because of the nature of the novel. This is the sheer genius and beauty of Pale Fire as written by Nabokov -- add to this comments thrown in here and there about being an author, the craft of writing and this book turns out to be one of the best books you'll ever read.
There are, of course, several commentaries, analyses and critiques of this novel to be found, so I'll leave you to those. I can't do it justice here, but suffice it to say, if you like this sort of thing, you won't be able to put this book down.
The poem itself is a masterpiece. Largely autobiographical (by John Shade), it ranges from pure twaddle to philosophical musings on death and what comes after. Some sections are full of pathos and quite moving, such as when Shade writes about his daughter Hazel and her untimely death, or Aunt Maud after her stroke. And to be able to write it as a 999 line poem in (often extremely ingenious) rhyming couplets is a real feat.
Charles Kinbote's commentary (complete with Index) is totally bizarre. The man is a complete and utter nutter! The way he weaved in 'his' story into the critique of the poem shows admirable self-obsession, and the goings on in Zembla and during the escape are absolutely hilarious.
I'm sure there are many very 'good' and interesting reviews of this wonderful book to be found in numerous places; what I say here cannot do it justice. But in the end Nabokov is playing with us as readers. What exactly is reality and what is truth here in this convoluted and complex tale?
Pale Fire explores the wayward mind of Charles Kinbote, a university teacher brimming with outrageous delusions.
Firstly, he believes himself to be the exiled King of Zembla (Zembla being a "distant northern land" in the vain of Hyperborea or, say, Avalon).
Secondly, Kinbote is obsessed with an old poet named John Shade, who just happens to live across the street near the campus, and it's with Shade's latest and last poem that the novel begins, a poem which Kinote utterly misinteprets as being about his life in the kingdom of Zembla and his daring escape to America from a plot to assassinate him.
The result of all this delusion is a humorous, puzzling, and elegantly imaginative account of one man's insanity, a madness that turns out to be strangely endearing, and which during its exposure invites the reader to decipher the truth of what really happened.
Concisely extravagant and weirdly exotic - some say Nabokov's finest novel, some may be perturbed by the foibles of the writer - overall an intriguing mix of fantasy and reality, truth and lies.
Kinbote, Charles, Dr., an intimate friend of S, his literary adviser, editor and commentator.
Shade himself gets just over one page for his index entry. Kinbote’s enemies are disdainfully dismissed in the index, not even accorded naming: mentioned in subheadings, hated ‘Prof. C’, ‘E.’ and ‘Prof. H.’ are each followed only by a parenthesis, ‘(not in Index)’; while the poet’s beloved wife, to whom the poem is addressed throughout, and whom the commentary bitterly denigrates, receives the sole entry:
Shade, Sybil, S’s wife, passim.
Teasing games are played. A theme of the commentary was the failure of the Zemblan rebels to find the crown jewels artfully concealed by Kinbote (King Charles X). The index includes the trail:
Crown Jewels see Hiding Place.
Hiding place, potaynik (q.v.)
Potaynik, taynik (q.v.)
Taynik, Russ., secret place; see Crown Jewels.
In the absence of any reference to Zembla and its Royal Family in the poem, their story is retailed wholly in the commentary and index. The index, with the commentary, constitutes Kinbote’s own fantasy autobiography.
Pale Fire is one of the more difficult novels I've ever read, but if you adhere to someone's famous motto "stay the course" you"ll find some nice treasures at the bottom of the rainbow. Especially recommended for readers interested in Postmodern fiction, cybertext and literary criticism.
It is unnecessary to recapitulate the structure or plot of the novel. Other reviewers have done so with admirable brevity. My comments will be mostly negative. First: Kinbote, the deranged critic/commentator who will occupy most of the reader's time, is a repellent creation and, far worse than that, he is consistently obtuse and almost always trivial. Nabokovian prose and a diverting set of word and plot puzzles aren't sufficient to place Charles Kinbote among the emotionally or intellectually engaging characters in the literary pantheon. Nor can Kinbote be defended as some kind of hilarious, biting or penetrating portrait of some recognisable variety of critic or commentator. He is too silly, too consistently wrong or obtuse. Second: John Shade's poem, from which the novel takes its title, sags terribly in its final canto. Even Kinbote concedes that Canto 4 is a failure. It begins with false grandiloquence: 'Now I shall spy on beauty as none as spied on it yet...&' and declines thereafter into the bathos of Shade shaving in his bathtub. What interest the last canto has derives from the reader's foreknowledge that it will never be completed and that Shade will be the unintended victim of the assassin Gradus or Grey.
Three stars for the remnants of Nabokov's craft as a prose stylist. And, too, for the heart-searing pain of Canto 2 of Pale Fire, which recounts the life and suicide of John Shade's poor ugly duckling daughter, Hazel. Here, the cruelty of the novelist as creator goes hand in hand with his compassion for the suffering which he inflicts on his creations.